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State maintains medical marijuana program secrecy

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Looking for the name and address of a New Mexico medical marijuana dispensary?

Do a Google search for “New Mexico medical marijuana dispensary.”

Looking for a doctor who specializes in certifying patients for medical marijuana use?

Do a Google search for “New Mexico medical marijuana doctor.”

Six years after implementation of the state’s medical marijuana program, most, if not all, of the licensed 23 pot dispensaries and many of the doctors are out of the closet.

Yet the New Mexico Health Department continues to shroud the program in secrecy.

Under its rules for the program, the department not only refuses to release the names of the licensed nonprofit dispensaries, but the names of the people associated with the dispensaries, which produce and sell medical marijuana.

Several years ago, the Health Department did provide arrest records for people associated with organizations seeking dispensary licenses but blacked out the names. The records showed arrests and/or convictions for prostitution, drug dealing and other crimes. We don’t know whether any of those with criminal records ended up working in licensed dispensaries.

Department spokesman Kenny Vigil says that despite the names and addresses of dispensaries being available on the Internet and elsewhere, the agency has no plans to revoke the confidentiality rule.

“The product is for patients and there is no reason for the general public to know about these locations,” Vigil said in an email. “One reason for the confidentiality provision is security of producers and patients.

“Some producers have made their contact information public; but even in those cases, they don’t typically make their production locations public. Producer information can also lead to the discovery of patient information.”

The Health Department does provide a list of licensed dispensaries to patients whose doctor certifications for use of medical marijuana are approved by the department.

Rules for the medical marijuana program require the department to maintain a confidential file that includes the names of doctors who certify patients, but the department says it doesn’t currently compile reports on the number of patients certified by each doctor.

My Journal colleague Colleen Heild reported last month on testimony before the state Medical Board that doctors have certified patients over the phone or via Skype.

A total of 965 medical providers have certified patients for medical marijuana use since the program began, according to the Health Department, but some doctors are certifying a disproportionate share. A doctor recently disciplined by the Medical Board said he certified more than 1,000 people.

Knowing which doctors are certifying large numbers of patients could help explain why some counties have high rates of enrollment in the medical marijuana program.

For example, Sierra and Mora counties each have about 13 patients in the program per 1,000 residents, according to my analysis of Health Department data. The statewide rate is fewer than 5 patients per 1,000 people. Some counties have rates as low as 1 per 1,000.

Vigil said any attempt by the department to explain why enrollment rates vary widely among counties would be speculation.

Supporters of the medical marijuana program have said that disclosing names of certifying doctors could have a chilling effect on those doctors because pot production, sales and possession remain illegal under federal law.

But the U.S. Department of Justice made it clear just last week that it isn’t interested in challenging state laws that allow for medical and recreational use of marijuana as long as use is strictly regulated to avoid sales to minors, drug trafficking and other major problems.

As of July 31, there were 9,607 patients in the New Mexico medical marijuana program. Post-traumatic stress disorder is the top qualifying condition for the program, with 4,068, or more than 40 percent, of the patients. Chronic pain is the No. 2 qualifying condition, with 2,773 patients.

When the program was being debated in the Legislature, supporters said medical marijuana would ease pain, nausea and other symptoms caused by illnesses like cancer and their treatment.

Health Department rules require the agency to keep a file on patients, but the agency doesn’t currently track demographic information for the patients other than qualifying condition, county of residence and date of birth.

The average age of patients in the program is 49, Vigil said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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